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THIS ARTICLE IS ABOUT TYPOGRAPHY IN MOVIE TITLE SEQUENCES A Little W hite Lies special The Evolution of Type; in a Centur y of Cinema Article by Edward Hall


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“In the new visual culture that surrounds us, letters are losing to the image in communicative importance.� Marshall McLuhan


Marshall McLuhan was a Canadian scholar and communications theorist who believed that lettering had become less important in communication. He theorised this during the first half of the twentieth century, when cinema and photography started becoming increasingly popular. Typography has always had a huge part to play in cinema. It can be argued that, from the birth of commercial motion pictures in the late nineteenth century, type and image have been a necessary part of films and their promotion.

Typography has always had a huge part to play in cinema. It can be argued that, from the birth of commercial motion pictures in the late nineteenth century, type and image have been a necessary part of films and their promotion. During the industrial revolution, the printing press was developed further, increasing the amount of printed matter going out to the public and the speed at which this could be done. During these times, typesetters, printers and font foundries had the power to change people’s perception of the printed word. A subtle change in the point size, typeface, tracking or layout

could change the way the public approach reading the words on the page. The advent of film photography and celluloid meant that the mass public could experience a new type of media. As feature films became more popular, there was a need for typography to accompany the images, as part of the film, or as part of advertising for the feature. This meant that typographers had to become more in touch with new technology and begin designing for new formats.


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The use of typography in modern cinema has changed considerably over the course of the last century. In the beginning, typography in cinema was used for basic information and credits as well as narrative and dialogue, as at this stage, most films were silent. When films became more popular, the studios started packaging films and typographers began creating logo’s for studios and recognisable specialist fonts for certain movies. During the evolution of cinema, beginning title sequences began to become more complex as new techniques

were introduced and designers could become more creative with type, combining it with image. Eventually, this meant that designers could introduce concepts into their titles and directly link titles to the narrative of the film. During the birth of cinema, typography was used for practical purposes, the kinetoscope was patented which allowed silent movies to have title cards incorporated. This allowed designers to place basic information at the start of the feature such as title, Production Company, actors and director.

Additional Photography: Greg White


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was often due to the fact that imperfect film could be masked by solid black. It was also seen as a way to be different from the printing press

with use of typography. Some designers such as Ralph Spence charged up to ten thousand dollars per film. Sign writers and

The designer also had to place inter-title cards into the film at key places. Due to the lack of sound, these titles were designed to give essential information

and printed matter, and it looked clear when being projected. Typographers and designers used a range of typefaces, mainly ones that had small

designers used the same techniques on designing titles as on packaging. The designer would create titles that would use fashionable

such as dialogue between characters, lapses in time and narrative development. Without these cards, or with different text on them, often lead to

serifs for clarity, but also kept the feeling of up to date technology. Already, designers had to decide the style of typeface to match the style of the film.

typography, as with packaging any item. The only difference being that titles in films could not be changed with time. Designers began to “package”

very different films in the same scenes.

Most title designs were left to the studio’s sign writer who would also add flourishes, typographic symbols and other ornamental elements. From the

films and create brand images for studios. George Melies, one of the pioneers of cinema, had the idea of placing the brand name at the start of his studio’s

eighteen-nineties to the nineteen-twenties, intertitle designers became very valuable and were able to make a mediocre film into an interesting film just

films, and just change the title and necessary dialogue from film to film. This was the start of packaging films using brand identity. Titles were still

During these times, designers used white lettering on a black background. This


Woody Allen films with a consistent identity using the “Windsor” typeface.

white text on a black background for legibility, this was economic, simple and doesn’t deter from the concept of the film, but in modern culture, this form of titling would connote a low-budget feel, as we now don’t consider titles as just informative text. In modern cinema, to choose white type on a black background would not be a choice due to budget, but a decision relating to the concept of the film. For example, Woody Allen’s films, Annie

Hall, Hannah And Her Sisters, Radio Days and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, all use the same font “Windsor” in white on a black background.


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This is not due to budget, but down to packaging his films so that the viewer knows what they are expecting. The film Adaptation also uses white on black to tie-in with the concept of the film. White on black is still used in cinema today but for conceptual reasons rather than clarity and limitations in technology. In 1927, Samuel Welo designed the “photoplay” typeface. This was an art nouveau font that was used heavily on film titles and posters, typefaces during this period changed with the fashion of the times. Other popular typefaces used were “Adsans” and “Spartan”. This style of title design and choice of typography

was down to the new breed of typographers working on films. During this time, many had chosen to move away from classical typography and Samuel Welo’s ‘Photoplay’ typeface designed in 1927 begin to design their own, more modern fonts inspired by art movements such as art nouveau, industry and architecture. When cinemas “Typesetters for films began creating their became more typefaces that were similar to those of the popular, studios had to engage their target audience faster, packaging their movies took another step further when titles became “logo’s”. To target the public, the title designer had to create a logotype for the movie that established the tone instantly. Basic examples of this are that gothic typefaces evoke a horror film, painted

own foundries”


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or “wanted” lettering connotes a western film and book pages suggest a literary and serious film. Typesetters for films began creating their own typefaces that were similar to those of the foundries, but designed for a single purpose or film. These fonts allowed for more imaginative outcomes in title design. Technological advances meant that title designers could use more effects and optical illusions on their type such as threedimensional type, drop shadows etc. Each studio had an in-house designer that would often do work on many studio productions and go uncredited, these designers and typesetters had to work to the style of the studio and often titles were designed similarly to the studios logo at the very start of the film. Each logo was designed to show the qualities of the company such as MGM, which connoted glamour, quality and large budgets with the lion and golden serif-ed type. During the nineteen

thirties and forties, many cinema’s still kept curtains closed during titles, so filmmakers began setting the titles further into the film, an example of this is James Bond films who borrowed a television technique of having a “teaser” sequence before the titles. Title designers began manipulating type using optical effects such as Forbidden Planet in 1956, where the designer optically distorted the type, which broke the fashion of the time. Other designers used their type to support images shown behind, such as in Horror of Dracula, where a red gothic typeface is used in combination with dark images of a church. These titles now began to convey the tone of the film from the very start. Typographic techniques such as these are still used today. As more techniques evolved in the making of films, title designers had to develop their styles and become familiar with the grammar of movies.

Type started moving and three-dimensional lettering became more common. Title designers began placing type in liveaction titles where physical lettering was shot in situation. Designers now used filmmaking techniques to create a sort of short film that was in keeping with the main feature. To do this, a title designer would use other elements to create impact on type such as, lighting effects, camera movements, sound and a range of transitions. A good example of this style is Robert Brownjohn’s title sequence for From Russia With Love. Brownjohn created a stunning title sequence by simply projecting his type onto the body of a belly dancer. The lettering is clear, but as she moves, the titles become illegible. The girl acts as a texture or background for the sans-serif type. This method not only perfectly incorporates type and image, but it also stays within context of the movie and has a relevant theme.

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Robert Brownjohn’s iconic title sequence for ‘From Russia With Love’ (1963)

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It can be argued that the type has a smaller role compared to the image, which supports McLuhan’s theory that image is becoming a more important communicative tool. When title designers use physical lettering, they see the type as a subject, which is a different way of looking at the letterforms. Type is usually superimposed on an invisible plane between the image and us. Physical type is filmed using a range of different shots for different reasons. These camera movements can gain several results, a pan shot moves across the lettering and reveals the letters in order, allowing the viewer to read the word. This technique makes the lettering the most important element

on screen. The same shot with a quicker movement could make the type blurred and the lettering becomes imagery. A zoom shot slowly reveals the lettering to the audience. These methods make displaying title information more exciting and the audience anticipate what the next set of letters are going to say. Once again, film titles became conceptual, a camera moving around lettering could evoke a sci-fi feeling, or hand written type on a chalkboard could evoke a scholastic film. Scrolling type, such as end credits are an early example of type moving on screen. Other techniques such as animation were becoming more popular in the mid-twentieth century.

You could argue that typography from print has heavily influenced typography in movie title design, and that as typographic fashions change, as do the styles of film titles. Such as title sequences in the early twentieth century following the styles of Art Nouveau. Typographers from the world of print often influence title designers; this is evident in the work of Kyle Cooper. Cooper’s famous title sequence for Se7en is heavily influenced by the work of David Carson. Carson was part of the wave of new typographers in the late eighties and early nineties, who broke the rules of composition and legibility. At the time, the Swiss style set the conventions for clean,

Cooper’s sketches for the ‘Se7en’ title sequence.


simplistic design. Designers like Carson and Neville Brody were pioneers in typographic deconstructivism. In the Se7en titles, Cooper layers type on type, blurs type, and uses a mixture of hand-rendered and digital type to create a stunning sequence. The techniques make the letterforms illegible in some places, reminiscent of David Carson’s work for Raygun Magazine. Kyle Cooper also cuts the sequence in a way that makes type flash up and disappear quickly, showing disjointed letterforms and unclear words. The similarities between Carson and Cooper are shown in Kyle Coopers titles for Fallen, in which letterforms are shown layered behind main credits and the letters

come ‘deconstruct’ and disappear as a form of transition. Cooper uses this heavily influenced style once again for The Mummy, with the added style of Egyptian hieroglyphics and a font with inspiration from ancient Egypt. Kyle Cooper came from a graphic design background and studied under Paul Rand at Yale. This meant Cooper had an extensive knowledge of typography. Some title designers come from a cinematic background, and their title sequences are not as typographically strong. Cooper is quoted as saying, “The types are like actors to me. They have their own characteristics. When I was young, I would take a word from the


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dictionary and try to design what the word in itself meant.” Kyle Cooper This explains his excruciatingly detailed title sequence for Se7en and the influence of his background and peers in graphic design. Other title designers who were influenced heavily by typography in print are Mimi Everett and Randy Balsmeyer who designed the titles for Fargo. The sequence shows

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R great typographic composition inspired by 1990’s typography, the main feature being the increased tracking between letters. Inspiration for other title designers can come from the characters in the film itself; an example of this is Richard Greenberg’s opening titles for Star Trek Nemesis. The inspiration being the Klingons and their culture, the letterforms contain a Cyrillic style. Richard and Robert

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Everett & Balsmeyer’s ‘Fargo’ Sequence


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Greenberg have been at the front of digital technology since the late nineteenseventies. Their titles for Superman were a revolutionary use of the computer. The typographic design is the key, and the way the titles ‘warp’ away from the viewer was brilliant in its day. Today it looks dated, but the type perfectly compliments the films sci-fi theme. The Greenbergs also worked on Ridley Scott’s film Alien, creating a masterpiece of typographic design. The slow reveal of the parts of the letterforms and their composition were very avant-garde and have had a huge

influence on modern title design. The composition of the type in titles can help set the tone of the film and is a key typographic element. For example, Dan Perri’s titles for the Star Wars saga immediately sets the tone for the film, the background image of space and the yellow, stylised type immediately connotes that the film is of the science fiction genre. But interestingly, the scrolling prologue is reminiscent of early, small budget movies, but in this instance, the structure suggests a children’s story. This is


The Greenberg’s iconic ‘Alien’ titles


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supported by the words “Once upon a time”. Strong composition is also seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest in which Saul Bass used the lines and forms of a skyscraper to create a grid system for the titles. The credits would then scroll in from different angles along this grid system whilst the grids kept

the letterforms sizes and composition constant. We can argue that lettering has started to become less needed in communication due to new media, we are becoming a more visual culture due to films, and we can now communicate through sound and image. But it can also be said

that without lettering, early cinema wouldn’t have thrived the way it did, and we wouldn’t have developed motion pictures to what they are today. Typography has been a key element in the cinematic medium since its advent. It has been used to promote films on posters, provide information on the film and even give

us further information, dialogue and narrative for the film. The role of typography in films has changed considerably since the late eighteen hundreds. Titles became a kind of packaging for the film, with distinctive logo’s that were easily marketable. Similarly, typography in titles had to set the tone


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of the film and give visual clues about the films genre, so that audiences knew what kind of film they could go and see. Typography in movie titles began as an essential element of the film to becoming packaging and even becoming one of the highlights. Movie titles now have to imply the tone of the film instantly through clever use of type or type and image. This creates a new challenge for typographers, as they have to keep titles in the style of the story and even introduce concepts that relate to the movie. The style of typography has often changed throughout the decades alongside the trends of the era, fashion movements and art. Other media, especially typography from other formats, has often influenced titles. During the Art Nouveau period, films were inundated with modern typefaces and during the sixties; handwritten styles to psychedelic type came

into vogue. In the eighties and nineties, designers began using clean, Swiss style typography and began looking at classical style type. During the nineties, typography in cinema was heavily influenced by digital technology and being able to deconstruct type into its constituent parts.

Throughout the history of modern cinema, the role of typography and its influencers have changed with changes in marketing and popularity of certain genres of film, the development of new techniques and technology and the style of the times. l


Title Sequence Article